Universally Christmas

by michael rogers

The universally observed traditional period of Christmas is upon us. How did something so close to one belief become so universal? It is a time of family, reflection, hope, peace and goodwill- and shopping.

The word "Christmas" means the mass of Christ and is the name for the Christian observance of the nativity of Jesus on 25 December. In liturgical importance, Christmas was originally in fourth place, following Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany, yet in terms of popular observance it has become the most important feast day of the year and the basis for a vast commercial retail industry derived from it, even in countries like Japan and Korea, where Christianity is not the predominant religion.

The early Christians were not initially concerned with the Nativity of Christ, and even in the fourth century C.E. it was not a universally fixed observance among Christians. The choice of 25 December is considered arbitrary and not based on evidence provided in the New Testament, the Christian text dealing with the life of Christ. Many theories have been put forward for the choice of the 25 December as Christ's Nativity, but that it fell during Roman Saturnalia is now largely dismissed. It appears to have been fixed in relation to Epiphany (6 January), counting backward twelve days (now the twelve days of Christmas) or thirteen nights by the lunar calendar. It also falls three days after the winter solstice, a date when a number of pagan gods underwent resurrection after the shortest day of the year. This includes Sol Invictus of the Roman state religion during pagan times, a cult associated with the deification of the emperor. Whatever the explanation, it is evident that the early Christian Fathers, in their struggle for political and psychological supremacy, turned the interpretatio romana (the process of romanizing foreign gods) on its ear by expropriating a number of pagan symbols and observances and providing them with new Christian meanings. For this reason, Christmas and especially the foods associated with it represent a fusion of diverse pagan strands varying widely in emphasis from one country to the next. The celebration of Yule in Scandinavia has become one of the most distinctive aspects of the holiday as observed in northern Europe. The tradition of St. Nicholas of Myra in the Netherlands and the Franciscan cult of the Bambino Gesu in Italy are examples of the many forms these fusions have taken. All are expressed symbolically in food.

The mass and the various mystery plays dealing with the Nativity and the ales, or community-wide feasts, were the core of the old observance. The mass was often preceded by abstinence, a period called the vigil, that was then broken at midnight with a large meal in which the entire village or community participated. Such midnight feasting was practiced in many predominantly Roman Catholic countries, such as Poland and Spain, into the twenty-first century.

Outside of the church but parallel to its liturgies existed the folk customs carried over from pagan beliefs. Thus the ales exhibited a prevalence of mumming (playful imitations of old gods and their stories), antlered beings, pigs (associated with butchering, of course), and other oral traditions given the shape of festive breads and cakes or reflected in the choices of certain foods, such as roast goose, or dishes containing blood, such as blood soups, blood sausages, and black puddings, from which English plum pudding and mincemeats evolved. In the Orthodox tradition of the Eastern Church, which broke with Latin practice, Epiphany remained the official Nativity of Christ, and dishes containing blood are fully absent from the diet, festive or otherwise.

The late Middle Ages retained community feasting, although it became more centered on the manor house, a practice later continued on the plantations of the American South, while in towns it moved into the private homes of wealthy merchants and the nobility. The Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on individual salvation, broke down the old community-wide feasts in favor of the family and home. This shift brought a widespread erasure of older village and folk customs (in England and northern Germany, for example) and the rise of the commercial Christmas. Gingerbreads, marzipans, and various festive foods hitherto made and sold by monks or by nunneries, moved into the general marketplace and become available to anyone with the financial means to purchase them. Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century often depict domestic feasts that present holiday foods in great abundance. In Protestant areas, the alms formerly associated with Christmas doles for the poor disappeared and did not return until the rise of urban missionaries in the nineteenth century.

The American Christmas, the primary theme of this article, inherited its major characteristics from England during the colonial period. Some religious groups, such as the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania, abjured the observation of Christmas altogether on the theological basis that the day was fixed artificially by the early Church and therefore was not a real holiday. The Puritans originally created Thanksgiving as a substitute for Christmas. Thanksgiving subsequently became attached to the Christmas holiday, more or less marking the commercial beginning of the Christmas season.

Other American regionalisms gradually emerged into mainstream custom. The Christmas tree, with its huge array of food ornaments, first appeared among the Pennsylvania Dutch in the form of table-top branches of cherry trees (which were forced to bloom) or a large limb from an evergreen shrub, such as mountain laurel or cedar. These table-top trees were set into large flower pots and surrounded with plates of festive food. The shift to small table-top trees is well-documented by the 1790s, and their appearance in store windows is noted in a number of newspapers during the 1820s. Later, in the 1840s, the Christmas tree custom was further reinforced by German immigrants, and it quickly became a symbol of status in Victorian households. While its origins are undoubtedly pagan, the tree was adopted by many churches during the Sunday School movement of the 1840s and 1850s as a means of teaching Christian values to children.

Likewise, during the revival of medieval themes led by the Oxford movement in England, St. Nicholas (called Santa Claus in America), the old gift bringer of the New York Dutch, underwent a complete rejuvenation, especially after his popularization in newspapers and magazines by the immigrant artist Thomas Nast. Thus by the beginning of the twentieth century the American Christmas had acquired a new and much less liturgical focal point, that is, Santa Claus and the exchange of gifts, including a tree under which the family displayed symbols of its economic well-being.

Throughout these evolutionary changes, the basic foods of the American Christmas remained the same, especially the format of the Christmas dinner. The dinner is based on eighteenth-century English models, and at its centerpiece is a roast, normally turkey. This centerpiece is surrounded by side dishes reflecting regional tastes and often ethnic backgrounds. Italian families may add a dish of pasta, although in households adhering to a more traditional Italian fare, the "five" fishes are served. African-American families may feature sweet potatoes and cowpeas, and Mexican-American families may incorporate a salsa and the custom of breaking a piñata, which culminates the festivities on Christmas Eve. The traditional explanation for the piñata custom is that the image symbolizes the devil, and, by breaking it, he is destroyed. The act is thus rewarded by a shower of good things to eat. However, the custom of creating a shower of plenty has numerous parallels with other pre-Christian fertility rites, most of which are associated in some manner with Christmas. The earliest recorded Christmas trees (in seventeenth-century German guildhalls) were left ornamented with food until Second Christmas (December 26) or New Year's Day, when they were shaken violently to shower the food on a mob of happy children. In other parts of Germany and central Europe, apple trees were shaken on Christmas Eve to ensure that the trees would bear a good crop of fruit.

The Christmas Day meal continues to evolve as newer immigrants add their own symbolism to the old theme or as older groups create new variations, as in the case of Kwanzaa of African Americans. Ethnic nuances aside, the basic meal focuses on roast turkey, repeats much the same meal format as Thanksgiving, and finishes with a variety of traditional desserts, including pumpkin pie, mincemeat pie, and fruit cake. It has been said that the unchanging quality of the Christmas dinner has endeared it to Americans, who find a sense of continuity in its year-to-year repetition. Trump that!

The Marie Curie Alumni are a truly global phenomena. Many of our member will be having these holidays in a different country and/or a different culture. Thanks to the Internet, we can now see how these holidays are observed in the country/culture you find yourself in. Go to https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/

As we head to 2019, don’t forget the debate for the new 100 Billion Euro Horizon Europe research programme will heat up to a frenzy, and this is the year for your voice to be heard. For those of you inside the EU, or from the EU, do not forget to tell your EuroMP, who will have the final say on what is approved, what you think needs to be done.



Thanks to Encyclopedia.com

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